Outline of Aristotle's Theory of Tragedy in the POETICS Definition of Tragedy: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete

, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions. . . . Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality—namely, Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Melody.” (translation by S. H. Butcher; click on the context links to consult the full online text) The treatise we call the Poetics was composed at least 50 years after the death of Sophocles. Aristotle was a great admirer of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, considering it the perfect tragedy, and not surprisingly, his analysis fits that play most perfectly. I shall therefore use this play to illustrate the following major parts of Aristotle's analysis of tragedy as a literary genre. Tragedy is the “imitation of an action” (mimesis) according to “the law of probability or necessity.” Aristotle indicates that the medium of tragedy is drama, not narrative; tragedy “shows” rather than “tells.” According to Aristotle, tragedy is higher and more philosophical than history because history simply relates what has happened while tragedy dramatizes what may happen, “what is possibile according to the law of probability or necessity.” History thus deals with the particular, and tragedy with the universal. Events that have happened may be due to accident or coincidence; they may be particular to a specific situation and not be part of a clear cause-and-effect chain. Therefore they have little relevance for others. Tragedy, however, is rooted in the fundamental order of the universe; it creates a cause-and-effect chain that clearly reveals what may happen at any time or place because that is the way the world operates. Tragedy therefore arouses not only pity but also fear, because the audience can envision themselves within this cause-and-effect chain (context). Plot is the “first principle,” the most important feature of tragedy. Aristotle defines plot as “the arrangement of the incidents”: i.e., not the story itself but the way the incidents are presented to the audience, the structure of the play. According to Aristotle, tragedies where the outcome depends on a tightly constructed cause-and-effect chain of actions are superior to those that depend primarily on the character and personality of the protagonist. Plots that meet this criterion will have the following qualities (context). See Freytag's Triangle for a diagram that illustrates Aristotle's ideal plot structure, and Plot of Oedipus the King for an application of this diagram to Sophocles’ play.

or resolution. The middle. Aristotle calls the cause-and-effect chain leading from the incentive moment to the climax the “tying up” (desis). although complex is better.. The plot must be “of a certain magnitude. Application to Oedipus the King.e. The plot may be either simple or complex. While the poet cannot change the myths that are the basis of his plots.e.. in modern terminology the complication.” By this Aristotle means that the plot must be structurally self-contained. the only thing that ties together the events in such a plot is the fact that they happen to the same person. 3. its causes are stressed but its effects downplayed).’ in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence”. it should “have an air of design. the greater the artistic value and richness of the play. in modern terminology the dénouement (context). reported rather than dramatized (context). The plot must be “complete. Similarly. or climax. the poet should exclude the irrational or at least keep it “outside the scope of the tragedy. He therefore terms the more rapid cause-and-effect chain from the climax to the resolution the “unravelling” ( lusis).e. 4. the more the playwright can catch and hold the emotions of the audience. the better the play will be (context). must start the cause-and-effect chain but not be dependent on anything outside the compass of the play (i. The beginning. The plot must be “a whole..e.1.e. must be caused by the preceding events but not lead to other incidents outside the compass of the play (i.” i. its causes are downplayed but its effects are stressed). Aristotle explains that a peripeteia occurs when a character produces an . no deus ex machina (context). with the incidents bound together by internal necessity. Complex plots have both “reversal of intention” (peripeteia) and “recognition” (anagnorisis) connected with the catastrophe. Simple plots have only a “change of fortune” ( catastrophe). and end. the more incidents and themes that the playwright can bring together in an organic unity. Both peripeteia and anagnorisis turn upon surprise. called by modern critics the incentive moment.” i. According to Aristotle. its causes and effects are stressed). middle.” both quantitatively (length. each action leading inevitably to the next with no outside intervention. 2. complexity) and qualitatively (“seriousness” and universal significance). Also. Playwrights should exclude coincidences from their plots. Aristotle argues that plots should not be too brief. the more universal and significant the meaning of the play.” having “unity of action. must be caused by earlier incidents and itself cause the incidents that follow it (i. if some coincidence is required. The end.” with a beginning.. seem to have a fated connection to the events of the play (context). he “ought to show invention of his own and skillfully handle the traditional materials” to create unity of action in his plot (context). the worst kinds of plots are “‘episodic. the end should therefore solve or resolve the problem created during the incentive moment (context)..

” Characters must be logically constructed according to “the law of probability or necessity” that governs the actions of the play. The meaning of the Greek word is closer to “mistake” than to “flaw. “consistency” (true to themselves). leading to results diametrically opposed to those that were intended (often termed tragic irony). the peripeteia leads directly to the anagnorisis). these should continue throughout the play.” Aristotle relates this quality to moral purpose and says it is relative to class: “Even a woman may be good. Character has the second place in importance. claims Aristotle.” In the ideal tragedy. Application to Oedipus the King. Characters in tragedy should have the following qualities (context): 1. ennobled).e.” The term Aristotle uses here. producing love or hate between the persons destined for good or bad fortune. The protagonist should be renowned and prosperous. .g. often translated “tragic flaw. but of some great error or frailty in a character. “true to life” (realistic) 4. hamartia.” Such a plot is most likely to generate pity and fear in the audience.. leading to the final “scene of suffering” (context).” has been the subject of much debate. 5.effect opposite to that which he intended to produce. This change “should come about as the result. “necessary or probable.e. Once a character's personality and motivations are established.” 2. The role of the hamartia in tragedy comes not from its moral status but from the inevitability of its consequences.” and I believe it is best interpreted in the context of what Aristotle has to say about plot and “the law or probability or necessity. 6.” He argues that the best plots combine these two as part of their cause-and-effect chain (i. “fitness of character” (true to type). while an anagnorisis “is a change from ignorance to knowledge. and the anagnorisis is the gaining of the essential knowledge that was previously lacking (context).. In a perfect tragedy. this in turns creates the catastrophe. and also a slave. though the woman may be said to be an inferior being. personal motivations will be intricately connected parts of the cause-and-effect chain of actions producing pity and fear in the audience. i. e. the protagonist will mistakenly bring about his own downfall—not because he is sinful or morally weak. so his change of fortune can be from good to bad. Hence the peripeteia is really one or more self-destructive actions taken in blindness. not of vice. but because he does not know enough. “true to life and yet more beautiful” (idealized. valor is appropriate for a warrior but not for a woman. Application to Oedipus the King. character will support plot. and the slave quite worthless. for “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune. “good or fine. 3. fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.

Aristotle also talks of the “pleasure” that is proper to tragedy. but only of the monstrous” (context 1. we may assume that this category would also include what we call the themes of a play. Spectacle is last. he is particularly interested in metaphors: “But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. Diction is fourth. that formulate it for our cognition. What is artistically good is whatever articulates and presents feeling for our understanding. context 2). is fifth. and is found “where something is proved to be or not to be. mental. for it is least connected with literature. context 2). characters. We might profitably compare this view of Aristotle with that expressed by Susanne Langer in our first reading (“Expressiveness in Art. not inferable from a symptom. . Scribner. “the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” excerpt from Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures. Aristotle argues that the Chorus should be fully integrated into the play like an actor. However. works of art .” Aristotle says little about thought. The word means “purging. and is “the expression of the meaning in words” which are proper and appropriate to the plot.” Although Aristotle recognizes the emotional attraction of spectacle. Application to Oedipus the King. for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances” (context).” but should contribute to the unity of the plot (context).Thought is third in importance. making it visible or audible or in some way perceivable through a symbol.” and Aristotle seems to be employing a medical metaphor—tragedy arouses the emotions of pity and fear in order to purge away their excess. (661-62) . New York. Song. it is the mark of genius. . . and is the musical element of the chorus. and most of what he has to say is associated with how speeches should reveal character (context 1. In this category. not of the terrible. 1957): A work of art presents feeling (in the broad sense I mentioned before. Artistic form is congruent with the dynamic forms of our direct sensuous. cleansing) of the tragic emotions of pity and fear. or melody. Katharsis is another Aristotelian term that has generated considerable debate. to reduce these passions to a healthy. choral odes should not be “mere interludes. he argues that superior poets rely on the inner structure of the play rather than spectacle to arouse pity and fear. balanced proportion. Aristotle discusses the stylistic elements of tragedy. are images of feeling. those who rely heavily on spectacle “create a sense. and emotional life. as everything that can be felt) for our contemplation. The end of the tragedy is a katharsis (purgation. or a general maxim is enunciated. apparently meaning the aesthetic pleasure one gets from contemplating the pity and fear that are aroused through an intricately constructed work of art (context). and end of the tragedy. . .

The downfall of the Persian king demonstrates the folly of pride which provokes the wrath of the gods. The Latin author Horace adds that Thespis invented tragedy.67) notes that in some cities the worship of Dionysos. Ancient writers give us tantalizing glimpses of the possible origins of Greek theater. civil war broke out between the Athenian league and the Spartan confederacy. In his Poetics (1449a) Aristotle records that tragedy developed from improvisations on dithyrambs." probably referring to the practice of giving a goat as a sacrifice or a prize at the religious festivals in honor of the god Dionysos. celebrating its civic pride with a newly rebuilt Parthenon on the Acropolis. Our earliest extant tragedy. which lies on the hill beneath the Parthenon. The fifth century historian Herodotus (5. while Aristophanes offers an unusual comic solution for ending the war: a sex-strike by the women of both sides. rose to prominence. a type of choral poetry celebrating mythological subjects. while others demonstrate their ability to confront and surpass adversity. tragedy came to signify a dramatic presentation of high seriousness and noble character which examines the major questions of human existence: Why are we here? How can we know the will of the gods? What meaning does life have in the face of death? In tragedy people are tested by great suffering and must face decisions of ultimate consequence. A league of small city-states led by Athens defeated the Persian empire in two key battles at Marathon (490) and Salamis (480). This "Golden Age" witnessed major military encounters both with foreign invaders and fellow countrymen. In the final third of the century. The majority of evidence about Greek theater comes from the literature and performance records of the fifth century. The annual festival held at the Theater of Dionysos. Whatever its origins. brought visitors from miles around to see the dramatic contests and experience the glories of the city. Most of our extant plays come from this dark period: Euripides' Trojan Women depicts the horrors of war for the innocent victims left behind. winning our admiration and proving the greatness of human potential. Persians by Aeschylus. replaced earlier hero cults which had memorialized the hero's sufferings with tragic choruses. The earliest definite record we have of dramatic contests in Athens occurred in 501 BC (the typical date of 534 is based on an unreliable medieval text. apparently being the first actor to portray the legendary characters of myth instead of narrating their exploits in song ( Ars Poetica 275f). Some meet the challenge with deeds of despicable cruelty. During the following years Athens. see Scullion). records the humiliation of Xerxes and his mighty army only eight years after the event. in Lysistrata [correctly pronounced Ly-SIS- . god of wine and fertility.The word tragedy literally means "goat song. under the leadership of Pericles.

12). only three actors were needed for all the parts in one play. Choral odes exhibit a . known as the theatron (literally "viewing space"). often on a similar theme. Some ancient theaters could seat as many as 15. has given us our word for theater. conclusion. literally "something rolled out") on which scenes of bloody carnage could be briefly revealed. These could be exchanged backstage to allow the same actor to play different characters. A prologue. We use the Latin phrase deus ex machina (god out of the machine) to describe a last-minute rescue which brings the play to a surprising. The parodos brings the chorus into the orchestra to become an audience and respondent to the characters. Each playwright had a sponsor ( choregos) who hired the three actors and the chorus of 12-15 performers. Actors could enter and exit from doors on the front of the skené or from large aisle ways on either side of the orchestra. The playwright probably rehearsed his own cast much like a director would today. Each spring Athens held a festival at which the contests for best tragedy (and comedy after 486) held a central part. responding to the protagonist as an ideal audience. although lyric passages and dramatic dialogue differed considerably in style. Plays were written entirely in verse. meaning first contestant. According to Aristotle. During the choral odes their singing and dancing provided variety and spectacle. or dancing space.000 people. The body of the play alternates between episodes involving the principle actors and choral odes sung and danced by the chorus. to allow for the actors to change costumes and indicate the passage of time. The exodos concludes the play with all performers leaving the stage. Excellent acoustics permitted such large audiences to hear the performance. spoken by one or two characters.tra-ta]. Another common device was a rolling platform ( ekkyklema. There was little attempt at creating the illusion of a location other than using the scene building for a palace or temple. In several plays gods or the spirits of dead heroes appear to proclaim a prophecy or resolve a crisis. if improbable. which provided a place to change costumes and store props. The seating area. ch. Tragic playwrights submitted three serious dramas and a mythological spoof called a satyr play. At the back of the orchestra where most of the action took place stood the skené (pronounced "skay-NAY") or scene building. The chorus often portrayed the people of the city. One popular special effect was the mechane or crane which lowered a god from the roof of the skené to the stage. thus. tragedies had certain recognizable sections which most of our surviving plays follow (Poetics. The themes of Greek tragedy and comedy reflect the political and social concerns of these exciting and troubled times. Plays were performed outdoors. often on a hillside which provided a natural seating area for the spectators. introduces the play's setting and major action. Actors wore masks which covered their entire heads like a helmet. The lead actor was called the protagonist. allowing time for the actors to change into other costumes for the next scene. Benches of wood or stone surrounded an open circle of ground called the orchestra.

Frogs. Aristotle claims Sophocles was first to use a third actor. solemn. blending political satire with bawdy farce. hence we have more of his plays (18) than the combined total of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Two of his plays. Several of his plays depict women driven to violence because of their intense suffering. and Oedipus at Colonus. such as Electra. Aeschylus (524-456) was the early master of the trilogy. containing the plays Agamemnon. which indicate changes in mood and subject. Euripides (485-406) was known as an innovator. agon (formal debate). Euripides was not as successful in the contests as the other two tragedians during his lifetime. The only comic writer whose works survive from this period. at least in their popular manifestations. Medea. Libation Bearers. One other comic writer from the next century deserves mention. Wasps. Because of his daring approach. nearly impossible to convey in translation." . The Grouch and The Girl from Samos. Sophocles (497-405) is best known for his masterpieces Oedipus the King and Antigone. which influenced most of the subsequent comedies written in Western Civilization including Shakespeare and Moliere. in some of the most elegant Greek poetry ever written. whether religious. stychomythia (rapid exchange of dialogue) are the major forms. Both plays demonstrate excellent plot construction and skillful use of dramatic irony. excited. These make up the formal elements of tragedy. Ironically. the works of only four have survived. 15:33: "Evil companions corrupt good morals. three plays written to be performed together which continue the same story. and Seven Against Thebes (the authorship of Prometheus Bound is disputed). thus receiving credit for the invention of dramatic dialogue. Suppliants. have survived almost intact. According to Aristotle. Other tragedies by Sophocles include Aias.wide variety of meters. Menander (342-291) is credited with perfecting what ancient critics called New Comedy. Although hundreds of playwrights competed in the dramatic festivals in Athens and other cities. Aeschylus introduced the practice of using two actors. Actors spoke verse sounding more like common speech but using heightened rhetoric for specific purposes: rhesis (persuasive speech). Many of his plays are named after his fanciful choruses: Knights. etc. Birds. The apostle Paul quotes from a play by Menander in 1 Cor. His other plays include Persians. and Hecabe. but The Oresteia. Women of Trachis. Euripides seems to reflect current skeptical trends in philosophy in plays such as Heracles in which the title character questions the existence of the gods. monody (musical solo). Aristophanes (448-380) addressed current events in his plays. Most of the seven plays we have of his were once part of trilogies. Aeschylus wanted to be remembered on his epitaph not for his tragedies but for fighting at the battle of Marathon. and Eumenides. but during the fourth century his fame grew. experimenting with both the form and content of the traditional myths. Philoctetes. Clouds. is the only complete example still in existence.

and achieves. song. As Steiner explains. not narrative form. "Magnitude" refers not to the greatness of the subject matter. commentators such as Else and Hardison prefer to think of catharsis not as the effect of tragedy on the spectator but as the resolution of dramatic tension within the plot. but to the appropriate length of a production. Endless debates have centered on the term "catharsis" which Aristotle unfortunately does not define. it is presented in dramatic. painting. and their style of utterance must reflect this elevation" (241).Aristotle first defined tragedy in his Poetics around 330 BC. the catharsis of such incidents" (ch. majestic. or gods: the title character of Euripides' Medea is a wicked sorceress who kills her own children. Aristotle contrasts the shorter action of a play with that of an epic poem such as the Iliad. "There is nothing democratic in the vision of tragedy. having the proper magnitude. "Imitation" ( mimesis) does not refer exclusively to acting out something on stage. According to Aristotle. 5). he resolves the major conflicts. heroes. through the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents. is an imitation of a noble and complete action. . then. throughout the Poetics he focuses on dramatic form. Several of these terms require clarification. Aristotle may have been offering an alternative to Plato's charge that the dramatic poets were dangerous to society because they incited the passions. "Tragedy. Earlier in the Poetics (ch. According to Hardison. Some critics interpret catharsis as the purging or cleansing of pity and fear from the spectators as they observe the action on stage. and dance. or serious (Golden 84). leaving them better people for their experience. Golden 11). The royal and heroic characters whom the gods honor with their vengeance are set higher than we are in the chain of being. as some have suggested. then during the course of the action. A story with the proper magnitude for drama can be presented within two or three hours’ performance time. According to this interpretation. it employs language that has been artistically enhanced . Therefore. and all subsequent discussions of tragic form have been influenced by his concepts. it is uncharacteristic of Aristotle to define tragedy in terms of audience psychology. the term could be translated as larger than life. "Noble" does not mean that the characters are necessarily of high moral standing or that they must always be kings. "Enhanced language" refers to the fact that all plays at that time were written in poetic verse rather than the language of everyday speech. Human nature may cause us to hope . The dramatist depicts incidents which arouse pity and fear for the protagonist. This explanation of catharsis helps to explain how an audience experiences satisfaction even from an unhappy ending. not its effects on viewers. . Aristotle recognizes many forms of imitation including epic poetry (Homer). in this way tragedy relieves them of harmful emotions. However. 6. bringing the plot to a logical and foreseeable conclusion. .

the common man is a potential subject for tragedy (in the sense that one need not be a king or a demigod to act nobly). we come to expect the worst and would feel cheated if Haemon arrived at the last minute to rescue her. 2). nor one who falls into misfortune through vice and .that things work out for Antigone. A noble person is one who chooses to act nobly. while comic characters are "good-for-nothings" who waste their lives in trivial pursuits (Else 77). and comedy which imitates those of low or base character (ch. however. In tragedy people must make difficult choices and face serious consequences. While it may be true that. In Aeschylus' trilogy the Oresteia. represented by the Greek chorus. providing a happy but contrived conclusion. but we recognize the probable or necessary relation between the hero's actions and the results of those actions. and appreciate the playwright's honest depiction of life's harsher realities. Notice that Aristotle's definition does not include an unfortunate or fatal conclusion as a necessary component of tragedy. as Arthur Miller argued. but his demise is seen as a happy ending to an unhappy life. To witness a completely virtuous person fall from fortune to disaster would provoke moral outrage at such an injustice. The hero of tragedy is not perfect. Aristotle acknowledges that several Greek tragedies end happily. but. Ordinary humanity belongs on the sidelines in tragedy. . For him character is determined not by birth but by moral choice. Renaissance scholars understood this passage to mean that tragic characters must always be kings or princes. The conflict is successfully resolved when Athena appoints a court of law to uphold justice in such cases. the one thing a tragic protagonist cannot be is common. who happens to be Orestes' mother. Orestes must avenge the death of his father by killing his murderer. according to Aristotle. because of the insurmountable obstacles in the situation and the ironies of fate. a person of action whose decisions determine the fate of others and seem to shake the world itself. and Orestes is acquitted of any guilt. Sophocles wrote a sequel to this play called Oedipus at Colonus in which the hero finds a peaceful death after years of suffering to atone for his misdeeds. while comedy is peopled with the working or servant classes. Aristotle distinguishes between tragedy which depicts people of high or noble character. the downfall of a villainous person is seen as appropriate punishment and does not arouse pity or fear. Usually we think of tragedy resulting in the death of the protagonist along with several others. but he goes into exile instead of dying. . exists "between these extremes . a person who is neither perfect in virtue and justice. The tragic protagonist is always larger than life. The best type of tragic hero. In Oedipus the King the hero inflicts his own punishment by blinding himself. Tragic characters are those who take life seriously and seek worthwhile goals. but they do not always meet with death. but Aristotle was not talking about social or political distinctions. Likewise. While this is true of most tragedies (especially Shakespeare). In tragedy things may not turn out as we wish.

" literally means "missing the mark. these actions occur prior to the action of the play itself." For centuries tragedies were held up as moral illustrations of the consequences of sin. he kills Laius on the road. it seems inappropriate for many others. the critic predisposed to looking for the flaw in Oedipus' character usually points to his stubborn pride. Given the nature of most tragedies. and concludes that this trait leads directly to his downfall. but the play never indicts Oedipus simply for murder. This misunderstanding can be corrected if we realize that Aristotle discusses hamartia in the Poetics not as an aspect of character (ch. Much confusion exists over this crucial term. but rather. (A modern reader might criticize him for killing anyone. we should not define hamartia as tragic flaw. but certainly not his fault. several crucial events in the plot are not motivated by pride at all: (1) Oedipus leaves Corinth to protect the two people he believes to be his parents. (3) his defeat of the Sphinx demonstrates wisdom rather than blind stubbornness. .) Furthermore. 13). What Aristotle means by hamartia might better be translated as "tragic error" (Golden's miscalculation). While the concept of a moral character flaw may apply to certain tragic figures.depravity. There is a definite causal connection between Creon's pride which precipitates his destruction. Caught in a crisis situation. which Golden translates as "miscalculation. refusing to give way on a narrow pass. but can Antigone's desire to see her brother decently buried be called a flaw in her character which leads to her death? Her stubborn insistence on following a moral law higher than that of the state is the very quality for which we admire her." a moral weakness in character which inevitably leads to disaster. (2) his choice of Thebes as a destination is merely coincidental and/or fated. the protagonist makes an error in judgment or action. The central plot concerns Oedipus' desire as a responsible ruler to rid his city of the gods' curse and his unyielding search for the truth. so it must be someone's fault." This was the "comforting" response Job's friends in the Old Testament story gave him to explain his suffering: "God is punishing you for your wrongdoing. 13). "missing the mark. Searching for the tragic flaw in a character often oversimplifies the complex issues of tragedy. Oedipus falls because of a complex set of factors. not from any single character trait. actions which deserve our admiration rather than contempt as a moral flaw. The term hamartia. However. however. 15) but rather as an incident in the plot (ch. This interpretation comes from a long tradition of dramatic criticism which seeks to place blame for disaster on someone or something: "Bad things don't just happen to good people. but the fact that this happens to be his father cannot be attributed to a flaw in his character. one who succumbs through some miscalculation" (ch. For example. Critics of previous centuries once understood hamartia to mean that the hero must have a "tragic flaw." taken from the practice of archery. True." and disaster results.

) compares tragedy to such other metrical forms as comedy and epic. Orestes must avenge his father's death by killing his mother. Aristotle (384-322 B. In The Trojan Women by Euripides. However. self-mutilation. in Euripides' version of the story. while an important place to begin. we should remember that Aristotle's theory of tragedy. but as an unfortunate. and we pity him as a victim of ironic fate instead of accusing him of blood guilt. Hamartia plays no part in these tragedies. Helen. recognition. Aristotle's famous study of Greek dramatic art. queen of the gods. Mistaken identity allows Oedipus to kill his father Laius on the road to Thebes and subsequently to marry Jocasta. He says that poetic mimesis is imitation of things as they could be. not for anything he has done but because Hera.Most of Aristotle's examples show that he thought of hamartia primarily as a failure to recognize someone. which merely records what has actually happened. Aeschylus does not present Orestes as a man whose nature destines him to commit matricide. and exile. He determines that tragedy. is a kind of imitation ( mimesis). his mother. In the Oresteia trilogy. . innocent son thrown into a terrible dilemma not of his making. not as they are — for example.C. often a blood relative. only later does he recognize his tragic error. the only one who deserves blame for the war. the title characters are helpless victims of the conquering Greeks. the plot reaches resolution or catharsis. there are several tragedies in which the protagonists suffer due to circumstances totally beyond their control. should not be used to prescribe one definitive form which applies to all tragedies past and present. of universals and ideals — thus poetry is a more philosophical and exalted medium than history. but adds that it has a serious purpose and uses direct action rather than narrative to achieve its ends. escapes punishment by seducing her former husband Menelaus. ironically. Heracles. Critical Essay Aristotle on Tragedy Previous Next In the Poetics. Given these examples. While Aristotle's concept of tragic error fits the model example of Oedipus quite well. because he commits the crime in ignorance and pays for it with remorse. and catharsis. like all poetry. goes insane and slaughters his wife and children. In his commentary Gerald Else sees a close connection between the concepts of hamartia. For Aristotle the most tragic situation possible was the unwitting murder of one family member by another. wishes to punish him for being the illegitimate son of Zeus and a mortal woman.

. with emphasis on the dramatic causation and probability of the events. then. middle. He says that the plot must be a complete whole — with a definite beginning. not a quality. Several of Aristotle's main points are of great value for an understanding of Greek tragic drama. Aristotle has relatively less to say about the tragic hero because the incidents of tragedy are often beyond the hero's control or not closely related to his personality. there may be one without character. of which the first two are primary. of happiness and misery. spectacle (scenic effect). . the plot requires a single central theme in which all the elements are logically related to demonstrate the change in the protagonist's fortunes. character. and the protagonist is viewed primarily as the character who experiences the changes that take place. therefore. the soul of a tragedy: character holds the second place. especially those of Sophocles. . is not the representation of character: character comes in as contributing to the action. with illustrative examples selected from many tragic dramas. and some playwrights whose works no longer survive are also cited. This catharsis is brought about by witnessing some disastrous and moving change in the fortunes of the drama's protagonist (Aristotle recognized that the change might not be disastrous. and its end is a mode of activity. and . although Aeschylus. Now character determines men's qualities. but of action and life. with a heightened understanding of the ways of gods and men. Aristotle writes. and the end is the chief thing of all. Particularly significant is his statement that the plot is the most important element of tragedy: Tragedy is an imitation.The aim of tragedy. Moreover. tragedy has six main elements: plot. The plot is intended to illustrate matters of cosmic rather than individual significance. Without action there cannot be a tragedy. for example. and. Most of the Poetics is devoted to analysis of the scope and proper use of these elements. but felt this was the kind shown in the best tragedies — Oedipus at Colonus. and to purge them of these emotions so that they leave the theater feeling cleansed and uplifted. And life consists of action. but it is their action that makes them happy or wretched. This stress placed by the Greek tragedians on the development of plot and action at the expense of character. and song (music). was considered a tragedy by the Greeks but does not have an unhappy ending). is the first principle. Euripides. diction. Aristotle goes on to discuss the structure of the ideal tragic plot and spends several chapters on its requirements. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of the tragedy. The purpose of action in the tragedy. and end — and its length should be such that the spectators can comprehend without difficulty both its separate parts and its overall unity. is to bring about a "catharsis" of the spectators — to arouse in them sensations of pity and fear. The plot. thought. as it were. According to Aristotle. not of men.

owing to his own ignorance or poor judgment. whose misfortune. is one of the major differences between ancient and modern drama. and stylistic principles. despite its immediate cause in his finite act. true to life. fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Since the aim of a tragedy is to arouse pity and fear through an alteration in the status of the central character. overemphasis on a search for the decisive flaw in the protagonist as the key factor for understanding the tragedy can lead to superficial or false interpretations. acts in such a way as to bring about his own downfall. In a more sophisticated philosophical sense though. and as a character he must be true to type. but one who is not preeminently virtuous and just. In addition. devices. The hero's error or frailty ( harmartia) is often misleadingly explained as his "tragic flaw. then defines the ideal protagonist as . comes about because of the nature of the cosmic moral order and the role played by chance or destiny in human affairs. It gives more attention to personality than the dramatists intended and ignores the broader philosophical implications of the typical plot's denouement. the reader is forced to credit the Greeks with the most primitive of moral systems. . however. is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment or frailty. It is true that the hero frequently takes a step that initiates the events of the tragedy and. as when Oedipus' investigation of the murder of Laius leads .their general lack of interest in exploring psychological motivation. as crucial components of any well-made tragedy. a personage like Oedipus. Aristotle mentions two features of the plot. the hero should not offend the moral sensibilities of the spectators. The remainder of the Poetics is given over to examination of the other elements of tragedy and to discussion of various techniques." He surveys various possible types of characters on the basis of these premises. However. the hero's fate. Harmartia would thus be the factor that delimits the protagonist's imperfection and keeps him on a human plane. These are "reversal" (peripeteia). Unless the conclusions of most tragedies are interpreted on this level. and consistent. This view tends to give the "flaw" an ethical definition but relates it only to the spectators' reactions to the hero and does not increase its importance for interpreting the tragedies. a man who is highly renowned and prosperous. both of which are related to the concept of harmartia. making it possible for the audience to sympathize with him. It is worth noting that some scholars believe the "flaw" was intended by Aristotle as a necessary corollary of his requirement that the hero should not be a completely admirable man." in the sense of that personal quality which inevitably causes his downfall or subjects him to retribution. . where the opposite of what was planned or hoped for by the protagonist takes place. he must be a figure with whom the audience can identify and whose fate can trigger these emotions. Aristotle says that "pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune.

This sudden acquisition of knowledge or insight by the hero arouses the desired intense emotional reaction in the spectators. This approach is not completely suited to a literary study and is sometimes too artificial or formula-prone in its conclusions. the point when the protagonist recognizes the truth of a situation. eighteenth. and purposes of tragedy. Aristotle used the same analytical methods that he had successfully applied in studies of politics. In addition. the Poetics is the only critical study of Greek drama to have been made by a near-contemporary.to a catastrophic and unexpected conclusion. Nonetheless. ethics. and "recognition" ( anagnorisis). or comes to a realization about himself. discovers another character's identity. In the Poetics. and nineteenth centuries. The ideas and principles of the Poetics are reflected in the drama of the Roman Empire and dominated the composition of tragedy in western Europe during the seventeenth. as when Oedipus finds out his true parentage and realizes what crimes he has been responsible for. The tragic drama of his day was not the same as that of the fifth century. methods. and to a degree shows us how the Greeks themselves reacted to their theater. and to a certain extent his work must be construed as a historical study of a genre that no longer existed rather than as a description of a living art form. It contains much valuable information about the origins. in a period when there had been radical transformations in nearly all aspects of Athenian society and culture. . Aristotle's work had an overwhelming influence on the development of drama long after it was compiled. Aristotle wrote the Poetics nearly a century after the greatest Greek tragedians had already died. and the natural sciences in order to determine tragedy's fundamental principles of composition and content.